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Since these boys stared into Lewis Hine’s camera a century ago, the status of American children has improved in some ways but not others. Back then, children were prone to become whatever the economic situations of their families required. The children of farmers were often pressed into lives of drudgery, while others followed the trend of modernization, working in the street trades if they were city dwellers, or in mills, mines, and factories, all to stave off the want of individual and family poverty. Continue reading
The South Shore Line, an electric train that runs from South Bend Indiana into Chicago, runs through some of the most beautiful places along Lake Michigan as well as some of the poorest and dirtiest. The simple beauty of the dunes, marshes, and woodlands that line the Lake alternates with a landscape that industry and humble labor of many sorts have shaped.
The train runs along the beautiful old Calumet Trail, a prairie path that has existed since Indian times, following the curve of the Lake across boundaries separating town from country, blurring the distinctions of ownership and governing. All of northern Indiana and Chicago’s southern hinterland are seamlessly joined. On both sides of the train flow thousands of properties—neat and messy, beautiful and ugly, thriving and moldering—suggesting every condition of American society.
It’s a hard train ride because so many neighborhoods are decrepit and decaying. So many places—and people—are just scraping by. Our America is not a spotless picture-perfect place. Off the political grid are thousands of people subsisting in garbage-strewn trailer parks, or living in ramshackle housing with windows missing. They are exiles from the land of opportunity. Embarrassing aberrations with no place in the progressive narrative of the world’s greatest nation, they are geniuses of survival, disciples of the art of making something out of nothing. With luck, every day is the same, where social isolation limns the horizon.
Is this the nation our forebears intended us to become?
Among the hundreds of historical photographs I’ve looked at this week, this one stands out, jarring my sensibilities, its everydayness so strikingly at odds with ours. Whereas many historical photographs appeal because of their near-resemblance to the life we know, others are fascinating in their strangeness, in their capacity to demand independent consideration.
So it is with this photograph from the National Library of Ireland. It shows a muddy street in the port city of Waterford, where teamsters are conveying several carts of live turkeys up from the wharves. Their destination may be a local poultry store, where the turkeys were likely to be sold to customers live, then kept at home and butchered by those in the kitchen for the holiday meal. The date is December 16, 1907. To have a rich turkey feast was then, as in Dickens’ time sixty years earlier, a singular joy and a sure token of prosperity.
There was a different appearance to a street. The bricks of the gutter are evident, but the rest of the paving is scarcely visible beneath a thick layer of mud and animal waste, which night crews may have periodically combed smooth. The only conveyances in sight are carts and wagons, though elsewhere, we know, automobiles were beginning to appear. Besides teamsters hauling goods away from the harbor, the only other traffic is a pair of ladies in decent hats, driving themselves on their calls and errands.
The real point of interest, though, is along the curb, where we see a barefoot boy standing in the road. He and his friend may be hoping to earn a few coins by helping the teamsters unload the turkeys. Just a few feet away are a well-dressed lady and gentleman, and behind them are a trio of poorer, working-class women known as ‘shawlies.’ Whereas the lady has a proper overcoat or wrapper and a fur hat, the other women go about with their heads and bodies unceremoniously wrapped in shawls for warmth. They carry baskets.
Class was different then, as clothing and shoes and manners marked out very visibly just how different one type of person was from the other. Though the classes rubbed elbows much more intimately than they do today, the gulf between rich and poor was more evident and less was done to ameliorate it, to ease the suffering of the barefoot and hungry.
Image from this source.
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